Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 52, 57 and 65

Psalm 52: The Fool and Atheism

The fool says in his heart, There is no God.

It does not logically follow that every atheist is a fool or that all fools say there is no God. However the atheist position forms a foundational supposition on which that person’s worldview is then built. Life is analysed and ethical boundaries drawn through the lens of “There is no God.” Convinced atheists will admit that there is no meaning to life. There is no greater power who has given humans purpose. Life is an accident.

Of course atheists must then construct their own moral code and this usually arises from a utilitarian view of life. Basically they ascribe to what seems to work best for relationships and for the survival of our species. It assumes that the species is worth preserving but, because there is no overarching purpose, will easily accommodate such things as late-term abortion and euthanasia.

Because good relationships are deduced from what actually appears to work it may open up the position to the influences and whims of the majority, especially amongst unthinking atheists. Societal influences offer a strong incentive to get along with the crowd. New generations take different perspectives and it is often difficult to analyse those perspectives objectively from the inside of any generation.

Of course it may be objected that Christians take different positions on moral issues. It seems to me, though, that this largely occurs between those who hold to Scripture as God-inspired and those who do not, but who cherry-pick what they want to believe. In other words the atheist and the liberal Christian, both have moral codes, but the ultimate authority behind those positions lies within themselves.

The psalmist here links the fool, who says there is no God, who fails to seek God, with corruption. Unthinking atheists will eventually realise that if there are no consequences and no meaning to the way they live, then they might as well live for themselves (and isn’t self-interest what advertising in the media tends to promote?). Why should they live for others unless it benefits them, now. After all, there is nothing to look forward to after this life.

The psalmist also sees godless fools being overwhelmed with dread. Without God there is no refuge, no back up, no guidance. You are on your own.

The psalmist however does seek God. He calls out to him and finds strength and comfort. He delights in God’s law and follows his paths. In King David’s case, in particular, this was a known way and God had not failed him (55:16 & 22, 56:4 etc).

Psalm 57: The Chief Purpose of Humanity

I was recently challenged about my prayer life. Too much of what I pray for is related to myself and those I know. While it is important to pray for such things, I must not forget that the world needs to know about God. The Westminster Catechism asks…

     What is the chief end of man?

And answers…

     Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.

That is worth sharing. In fact Jesus’ Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 commands it! Israel’s purpose was to proclaim God’s glory, and the author of this psalm says…

      I will praise you, Lord, among the nations
I will sing of you among the peoples.

We are blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others (See Psalm 67 especially)

So I must pray more, for the nations to hear and respond to the message. To pray for people to be sent out. To pray for those who are already out there.  And to pray for opportunities to share the Good News wherever I am.

Psalm 65: Abundance

There are many examples of beautiful poetry in the Psalms. This is but one short passage that illustrates the overflowing abundance of knowing God and living in his ways…

 You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.
10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
11 You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.
12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 41, 42, 47, 49, 50 and 51.

Psalm 41: The Weak

“Blessed are those who have regard for the weak”

It’s one of those recurring themes; that God cares for the poor, the oppressed and the outcast and that he expects his people to do the same. Jesus mixed with and came to the aid of such, Micah wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8.) and the ever-practical James states in his letter, Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1:27)

It’s easy to de-emphasise the outworking of our faith if we only think about seeing people “saved” (important though that is!).

Psalm 42: The Suffering

      My tears have been my food
      day and night,
      while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

This is reminiscent of Job’s situation. In the face of disappointment, bereavement, disaster and human failure, victims and observers alike often ask the same question. The situation can either bring out the best in people or it can destroy their faith. The Psalmist finds solace in the refrain of verses 5 and 11 and 43:5…

      Why are you cast down, O my soul,
      and why are you disquieted within me?
      Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
      my help  and my God

Psalm 47: Awesomeness

For the LORD Most High is awesome.

It occurs to me that the word “awesome” has become so devalued in modern speech along with other superlatives such as “absolutely”. We can become desensitised to the intensity of meaning incorporated in the words.

During religious revivals it is reported that the presence of God was so evident that people hid under the church pews. The revelation of God as “the great king over all the earth… seated on his holy throne” commands utmost awe and respect. In the laidback worship which may only treat God as our best friend (not necessarily a bad thing), let’s not become so familiar that we forget how great he is and how small we are. Such knowledge should not of course continue to make us cower in fear but lift us up to praise with the Psalmist…

Sing praises to God, sing praises;
      sing praises to our King, sing praises.
      For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.

Psalm 49: Resurrection

Some people doubt whether the idea of the resurrection of the dead is evident in the Old Testament. Certainly the Sadducees even in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in it. This psalm does seem to hint at it though. Consider this…

the ransom for a life is costly,
      no payment is ever enough—
      so that they should live on forever
      and not see decay.

Although that could refer just to this life, the following seems to go beyond. The context is speaking of the wealthy who reject God…

Their tombs will remain their houses for ever…
This is the fate of those who trust in themselves…

Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.

The message here is; Don’t be jealous of the wealthy. They can’t take it with them. Nothing matters in the end but your relationship to the God who can raise you up.

Psalm 50: No Bull

      I have no need for a bull from your stall

At the heart of our relationship with God is our faithfulness to his Covenant with us. In New Testament (New Covenant) terms this is established through the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ for our sins. It is entered into through placing our faith in Christ. In the words of the Baptismal/Confirmation rites of many Christian denominations, “I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins.”

In the Psalmist’s day and before, the Covenant was sealed with a sacrifice, but a sacrifice without a heart of faith and a willingness to obey God was, and is, empty ritual. Both Testaments of the Bible confirm as the writer does here…

      Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
      “Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
      fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
      I will deliver you,
and you will honour me.”

Psalm 51: Broken

David’s psalm of repentance echoes Psalm 50.

      You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it…
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise

From brokenness, comes forgiveness and from forgiveness comes praise and joy and the ability to teach others God’s ways (verses 12, 13, 15).

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 22, 27, 31, 32, 33, 37 and 39.

 Psalm 22

The opening verse is the source for the words of Jesus on the Cross. Verse 8, the taunts of those who mocked Jesus. Verse 18, the actions of the soldiers who gambled for his garments. Apparently no psalm is quoted more frequently in the New Testament than this one.

The suffering of verses 1-18, turns to a prayer for strength and the assurance, “he has not hidden his face… but has listened to his cry for help.” and there is further assurance that all will be well. Verse 27 is but one reference in Scripture to the fact that God rules over all the nations and that all will bow down to him and acknowledge his kingship. It is the hope, the certainty, that God’s kingdom will indeed come in all its glory. It’s what sustains God’s people in times of persecution and suffering.

Psalm 27

“Teach me your way, LORD. Lead me in a straight path” could well be a daily prayer and more profitable to our well-being than many things we often pray for. It leads on to more good advice… Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Psalm 31

As in Psalm 22, Jesus is recorded as having quoted from this psalm, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” It affirms that God knows the anguish of his people (v7) and elicits hope and trust with, “My times are in your hands; deliver me…” (v15) and, “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.” (v24).

Psalm 32

Confession, they say, is good for the soul. And the psalmist agrees…

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
             and did not cover up my iniquity.
             I said, “I will confess
            my transgressions to the Lord.”
             And you forgave
            the guilt of my sin.

Guilt is both a perception and a reality. We are guilty before God and we bear its burden emotionally and psychologically. God deals with both burdens as we confess our sins to him. I find that many people do not think of themselves as sinners these days. They reserve that title for the worst of criminals. But John’s first letter reminds us, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1:8-9).

Psalm 33

 10 The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
11 But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.

The psalm reminds us that the power and authority of God stretch beyond Israel. In its context, back then, it probably referred to the nations’ plans against Israel as God’s people, who were seeking to fulfil God’s purposes in the world. But it can also be said that despite the rise and fall of empires, the establishment and replacement of rulers, God’s overall plan for humankind continues to be played out. The plans of humankind, without the prayer, “Teach me your way, LORD,” are doomed to ultimate failure unless God allows them to flourish.

Psalm 37

The opposite from human plans is expressed in verses 23-24

Our steps are made firm by the Lord,
             when he delights in our way;
             though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
             for the Lord holds us by the hand.

Psalm 39

               4     “Lord, let me know my end,
            and what is the measure of my days;
            let me know how fleeting my life is.
              5     You have made my days a few handbreadths,
            and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
            Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

While it isn’t healthy to morbidly dwell on death, it is helpful to recognise our own mortality and the frailty of life. As well as providing us with some perspective on our relationship to God, it also encourages us to live our lives to the full, with eternity in mind. Only the things we do for God will be of eternal worth. The rest will evaporate like the morning dew on a summer’s day.

Gleanings from the Bible: Psalms 1, 8, 12 and 19

The Psalms are numbered amongst the wisdom literature in that they stand outside of the biblical narrative of salvation. Like other wisdom literature they sometimes speak in generalisations. They tend to be personal in that they reflect the fears, failings and feelings of the individuals who have penned them. They reflect the emotions of praise and the passions of love and hate. They often express the way we feel and amongst them there seems always to be at least one that mirrors are situation at any given time.

As you might expect (given that many were written by the warrior king, David), there is a predominance of prayers for deliverance from one’s enemies, often starting with despondency and finishing with trust in God after bringing to mind all that he has done and reflecting on his power and mercy.

The following are a few verses that stood out for me as I have read them through on this occasion:-

Psalm 1

It starts with “Blessed is the one,” (singular) who stands in contrast with “sinners” (plural). The people of God have always been encouraged to pursue godliness even when they may have to stand alone. They are the ones who are well grounded and they prosper in God’s sight. They recall the sentiments of Psalm 18:29 By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.

 Psalm 8

The other day I watched a TV program on the Cosmos. It ended with the camera on a virtual spacecraft zooming out from earth. As it travelled the voice-over commented on all the conflicts, hopes and aspirations that had taken place, bound on an ever-diminishing blue dot that eventually became invisible. It powerfully put our greatest fears and triumphs into perspective! In the past I have looked into the night sky, while taking the garbage out along the track from our rectory. All the things I worried about and hassled over receded when I realised with the author of this Psalm, “…what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” And yet…

And yet, we do not simply curl up and die from insignificance, for God has crowned us with glory and honour. In parts of our western world, which is rejecting God and condemning itself to irrelevancy, the Biblical message offers meaning and hope.

I wonder if the phrase, “LORD, our Lord” at the beginning and end is meant to reflect and contrast the immeasurably powerful transcendence of Yahweh (LORD, The One who Is) with our Adonai (Lord), who draws close to us and offers a relationship with him, through his Son, Jesus Christ? LORD, our Lord, shows us the one who is well able to help us and the one who already helps us.

Psalm 12

7     You, O Lord, will protect us;
you will guard us from this generation forever.
8     On every side the wicked prowl,
as vileness is exalted among humankind. (NRSV)

I have watched the world change over my 66 years. Things which were deemed shameful in my youth are now celebrated. People who would have been shunned, are now regarded as celebrities. We tend to reward and honour the talented, the beautiful, the wealthy and the intelligent – the things we mostly inherit rather than work for. As someone commented, “It can be like looking into a shop window, where someone has mixed up all the price tags.” It’s not all bad of course. We often do show more love and consideration to those who might once have been ostracised without help or mercy (at least superficially). But sometimes I think we may have abandoned standards which have fallen like dominoes in an effort to justify our fallen race (Psalm 14:3). Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of Psalm 1 and also address the balance between justice and mercy.

Psalm 19

There are similarities with Psalm 8 here, and the sentiments are reflected later in Romans chapter one. Psalm 14 reads that “The fool says in his heart. There is no God.” Romans states that people are without excuse. The writer of Psalm 19 confirms that God can be seen in the things that he has created, “their voice goes out into all the earth…”

So many have tried to reduce the creative activity of God to the happenings of chance. The odds against life occurring as it does, by chance, are stupendously large, as science keeps reminding us. And yet it has become easier to accept the idea of an amazingly complex world, with even more amazingly complex human life occurring this way, and without any purpose, than to accommodate a Creator, who gives us a reason to live and thrive.

To do the latter makes sense of God’s law (not just a set of rules but a way of relating to our Creator). The Psalmist says that it is refreshing, trustworthy, making wise, giving joy, giving light, enduring and righteous (and more). He finishes with the prayer that could well form on all our lips,

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer

Gleanings from the Bible: Job

I am so glad that the book of Job is included in the Bible for a number of reasons.

It is great literature.
It helps people understand why there is suffering and how to deal with it.
It warns us not to jump to conclusions about those who do suffer.
It provides an example of faith in the face of suffering.
It helps us to get our relationship to God in perspective.

GREAT LITERATURE

The book of Job is part of a body of Wisdom Literature, which falls outside of the timeline of the biblical plan of salvation for all the nations. Job has a literary structure, which sets the scene and then open up into a dialogue between Job and his “Comforters” (who actually offer no comfort at all!) God speaks into the situation and the writer adds a conclusion. The dialogue is in moving poetic form, which, if it is impressive in English must be even more so in the Hebrew.

It strikes me that if students and educators could get past the paranoia about it being religious writing and appreciate it for its literary merit, it could be more regularly  included in curricula at high schools and universities. In fact the Bible as a whole is rich in its structure, storylines, allegories, allusions, idioms and vocabulary. It has contributed in often unrecognised ways to our language and common wisdom and has been regularly mined for its plots even in modern films and TV programs. In short, it is integrated into our culture, and for the better!

SUFFERING

Through the replies given by Job’s friends the book of Job answers part of the question about why people suffer. Their arguments amount to this:  All people have done something wrong and Job is suffering because he has sinned against God and needs to confess it. They are, of course, right that suffering exists because of sin, but the story makes it plain from the start that Job is a very righteous man and is suffering in spite of it. He is not suffering because he has sinned!

The reader already knows why Job is suffering. It’s something going on in heaven between God and Satan, but Job doesn’t know – and never finds out! It is at this point that faith is called for, both in Job and in the our contemporary world, where people suffer inexplicably.

Now saying, “We don’t know why you are suffering but you just have to trust God,” may sound both glib and a cop-out. But when you read God’s address to Job in chapters 38-41 and let the truth of it sink in, you cannot help but realise that the Creator knows immeasurably more than we do, and has the complete trillion-piece jigsaw of humanity, as we stand puzzling over a handful of pieces. There will, inevitably, be parts of that puzzle that we could not understand, even if they were explained to us. (I should note at this point that the reason given – almost a wager between God and Satan – would to me be most unsatisfactory if I were Job and God had explained it to me. It is why I think that this is just an example, serving the purpose to illustrate that we don’t know much of what goes on in the spirit world, as it affects our physical world.)

A WARNING

Too often we can be like Job’s friends, looking for someone to blame for why people suffer. Indeed sin may, alongside other explanations, be the reason. But the story of Job prompts caution. We cannot always know the real reason and should not jump to conclusions.

AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH

In the extremities of suffering Job is not entirely without fault. He is accused of discrediting God’s justice (40:8) and he admits to speaking of things he didn’t understand (40:3), but they were not the causes of his suffering. Job never turns his back on God. He never gives away his faith. He persists and argues and challenges God to front up and at least present the charges. He continues to engage with God, even while God appears to be totally absent!

In a world where many abandon their faith, blaming God, when something goes badly wrong, the story of Job informs and challenges us to hang in there.

But it’s not a blind faith. In fact blind faith is somewhat foolish. Faith depends on knowledge of the person in whom you place your faith and an understanding that they are indeed trustworthy. God has not left us without evidence of his character and faithfulness both in the things he has made and in the revelation of his dealings with humankind throughout history, recorded in the Scriptures. God has revealed himself most clearly in Jesus Christ, and his love for humanity is demonstrated in Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the World. It is the weight of this witness and the evidence in the lives of believers through the centuries, which provide the foundation for entrusting ourselves to the God who is trustworthy.

GETTING GOD IN PERSPECTIVE

To be true to the text of Job it would be better to consider ourselves in perspective. The thrust of Job’s and God’s statements lead us to see that God is so unimaginably great that he is unchallengeable.  His knowledge, wisdom and insight, his power and creativity leave us looking very, very small by comparison. I think of this when I hear people railing at God for one thing or another, confident that they have somehow, through their own philosophy, reduced The Creator to a figment of the imagination or at best a morally inferior failure. The book of Job teaches that we know hardly anything. And in fact scientists today tend to concur (to date we’ve only explored about 5% of the oceans and Caleb Scharf in an article called ‘This is what we don’t know about the Universe’ -Scientific American, 4th March 2014,- concluded, There’s an awful lot we don’t know (far more than just the examples here). But the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It’s what ultimately drives science, and it’s what makes the universe truly awe-inspiring. After the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens has loped around, the cosmos can still elude our fidgety, inquisitive minds, easily outracing our considerable imaginations. How wonderful.

Wonderful indeed!

Gleanings from the Bible: Esther

Esther must be the most entertaining book in the Bible. It has it all: intrigue, conflict, racism, courage, irony, dark humour, coincidence and even a little gore (for those who like that sort of thing), all set against the background of the Persian Empire, during the Exile of the Jews from their homeland. I can imagine it being performed as an onstage melodrama. Cheers as Esther and Mordecai enter and boos for the evil Haman.

The overall purpose of the book seems to lie in explaining how the Jewish Festival of Purim came into being but it has often been noted that nowhere is God explicitly  mentioned. At the same time there is a request for fasting and throughout the coincidences are so remarkable that we should obviously understand that God is at work engineering events in the background.

There are films about Esther, but I recommend reading the book in one sitting. I’m not going to recount the whole story here, but there are some highlights which I must mention.

The first is Queen Vashti’s refusal to be at the beck and call of her husband, Xerxes. Could this be an early form of women’s lib unwittingly serving God’s purpose to have Esther in the right place at the right time?

Then there is the challenge of Mordecai as he enlists Esther’s help in approaching the king: “… and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Would that we could all find the purpose God has for our lives and have the courage to follow it. Using our gifts for others rather than simply basking in the blessings that have come our way.

The third highlight is simply the delight in seeing events escalate and unravel to reveal the villain and see him get his just desserts.

Finally, when Haman’s edict was overturned and the Jews were given permission to defend themselves and plunder their enemies, the author notes, almost in passing, that many people of other nationalities became Jews. As you would!

As we admire the strength and courage of Esther and Mordecai, we also acknowledge that, as in the rest of the Bible, it is God who is the ultimate hero. As ever, he gives courage, turns the hearts of kings and weaves a rich tapestry of events that reveal his constant faithfulness and love for those who will rely on him.  

Gleanings from the Bible: Nehemiah

Great things seem to happen when people pray! Nehemiah, on hearing of the devastation of Jerusalem, and mindful of the failings of his people, set himself to fast and pray that God would remember their plight. When the Persian King, Artaxerxes then noticed the sadness of Nehemiah his cup-bearer, he asked, “What do you want?” Nehemiah prayed again, but presumably silently, with his eyes open – what is often referred to as an “arrow prayer” – I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king. The amazing result was that the king facilitated Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem and the repair of the walls.

GOD WORKS plus HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY

Clearly you see in Nehemiah two sides of achieving God’s plans for his people. There is the work that God does, often behind the scenes in influencing and inspiring the hearts and minds of people. Then there is the work that the people themselves do. They also have a responsibility. So consider that, in the face of local opposition, the building progressed well, for the people worked with all their heart (4:6).

In a similar way, consider…
But we prayed to our God
and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat (4:9)

            Remember the Lord who is great and awesome
and fight for your families…  (4:14)

            Our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot
and that God had frustrated it
we all returned…each to our own work. (4:15)

It’s rather like the relationship between faith and works outlined in James’ New Testament letter.

MORE THAN BRICKS AND MORTAR

Rebuilding the walls was only part of Nehemiah’s task. Providing for the poor was another and rebuilding the people’s knowledge of God and his ways was paramount to a redeveloping and healthy society.

As a teacher, it’s music to my ears to hear that Ezra and the Levites read to the people from the law, making it clear and giving the meaning , so that people understood what was being read (8:8)…  …then the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words (8:12). Day by day Ezra continued to read from the Scriptures, and in chapter nine we read of an assembly at which there was repentance, an acknowledgement of all that God had done and corporate confession of the past failure of the nation. This in turn led to a re-confirmation of the Covenant vows!

We should never underestimate the value of faithfully expounding the Scriptures and the effect that has on the lives of people and even in the direction of whole nations!